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Area teachers gain elite status

January 10, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Ask them about it and they cringe.

Their brows bend in expressions of mock dread. They shake their heads and bury them in their hands. Memories of the ordeal seem painful.

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But they are proud of it.

"I think it is the ultimate in professional development," said Sharon Palm.

"It's the Olympics of teaching," said Karen Johnston.

They recently became Washington County's first nationally certified teachers. To reach that goal, the duo spent several months writing intensively and compiling hefty portfolios of their work.

They videotaped their classes to show themselves in action. They spent eight hours on an extensive exam, answering all essay questions. Four months later, they learned by mail of their success.

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Both found the process extremely stressful and difficult - but well worth it.

"I thought it would take me three years," Johnston said.

"I can't imagine a dissertation being any more difficult," Palm said.

A few years ago, the teachers' former principal showed his staff a video about national board certification. The process recognizes highly accomplished teaching practices. It is the pinnacle of the profession, according to School Board member Edwin Hayes.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is an independent, nonprofit organization. It is governed by a 63-member board of directors of mostly classroom teachers.

Palm and Johnston were interested in certification, but Palm was working on her master's degree and worried about the time commitment. She said no at first. They eventually applied together in the winter of 1998.

"I'm a perfectionist at heart," Palm said. "I seek out ways to challenge myself. I can't stay stationary."

Johnston saw national certification as a way to affirm her independent skills.

Application alone cost $2,500, but the Maryland State Department of Education offered them scholarships. They got heavy boxes filled with binders in late October. It took until Christmas to read the instructions and fully grasp what the task entailed.

From January until mid-April, they spent almost every spare moment on their portfolios. When they finished school work, they had their own homework. They each wrote more than 180 pages and worked more than 400 hours on them.

"My kids did the grocery shopping and my husband did the laundry," Johnston said.

"We joke about it, but truly our families had to support us through this," Palm said. "There are a lot of sacrifices you make. This is not something you can tackle easily. We really had to call on our faith."

Each component of their portfolios had to document a skill relating to one of 11 standards. They included students' work, lesson plans and other examples of achievement. The instructions were open-ended, so each followed them differently.

They mailed their portfolios April 15 at a cost of about $40, including insurance. Each had heard horror stories of packages lost.

Aside from the anxiety and drudgery of the task, both teachers say the work made them better teachers. It made them acutely self-aware. "It forces you to think about what you do," Palm said.

They had to learn to use newer technology such as digital cameras and scanners. They had the help of parents and peers, which strengthened those relationships. "This really got the parents of my students involved," Johnston said.

Palm said she hopes national board certification helps bring more respect to the teaching profession. "We are highly trained people and we are very educated," she said.

According to Palm, national board certification has about a 40 percent pass rate. Last year, 2,965 of 7,000 applicants succeeded, she said. Maryland had 14 teachers certified. When Palm and Johnston got letters by UPS Nov. 15, they were ecstatic.

They have the familiarity of those who survived a shared trial.

They met after the School Board hired them in 1992. Both now work at Boonsboro Elementary School.

Johnston is a Decatur, Ill., native. She began teaching in 1977 after graduating from Bradley University with a bachelor's degree in music education. She has taught in Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland.

Palm grew up in Boonsboro and attended its schools. She began teaching in 1992 after graduating from Shepherd College with a bachelor's degree in elementary education. She taught at Fountain Rock Elementary School for two years.

Johnston's husband, Bruce, is a Hagerstown city engineer. They have a 19-year-old son, Jeff, and 15-year-old daughter, Susan. Palm's husband, Jeff, is an insurance adjuster. They have an 18-year-old son, Brad, and a 19-year-old daughter, Andrea.

The teachers thank the community for their achievement. Without that support, Palm and Johnston said they could not have succeeded. It also took teamwork. "I think it was really wonderful we had each other," Palm said. "We were pretty lucky."

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